Working with Desire: Three Approaches
by Matthieu Ricard
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are three traditional approaches to disturbing emotions, including afflictive desire. The first method is to develop an antidote. In the case of desire, one such antidote is the cultivation of nonattachment to desired objects. This way, the
practitioner can neutralize afflictive desire. With the second method, the practitioner, rather than focusing on a desired object, instead examines the nature of desire itself, and in discovering its insubstantiality, frees himself of its pull. With the third method, which is said to be a powerful catalyst but also the most difficult and dangerous technique, the practitioner uses desire as path, turning its energy into fuel for practice. The metaphor commonly used for the latter method is the peacock, which eats poisonous substances only
to make its feathers more brilliant.
Buddhism does not advocate the suppression of all desires, but rather offers the means to gain freedom from afflictive emotions. The desire for food when one is hungry, the aspiration to work for peace in the world, the thirst for knowledge, the wish to share one’s life with dear ones, or the yearning for freedom from suffering: all of these can contribute to lasting happiness as long as they are not tainted by craving and grasping. Like the other emotions, desire can be experienced either in a constructive or in an afflictive way. It can be the catalyst for a meaningful life—or the maelstrom that wrecks it.
Usually, when a desire arises, we either satisfy or repress it. In the first case, we surrender our self-control; in the second case, a painful conflict builds up. The problem with merely satisfying a desire is that we set into motion a self-perpetuating mechanism: the more salty water we drink, the thirstier we feel. This is how we become addicted to the causes of suffering. But once we know how to have a dialogue with our emotions, the intensity and frequency of the mental images that trigger desire will diminish, and we will become less influenced by desire, without having to repress it in any way. The few images that still arise will be like fleeting sparks in the vast expanse of the mind.
If we lack inner freedom, any intense sensory experience can generate strong attachments that entangle us. On the other hand, if we know how to perfectly maintain our inner freedom, we can experience all sensations within the pristine simplicity of the present
moment, in a state of well-being that is free from grasping and expectation.
When desire is particularly intense and is experienced as an affliction, we begin by using antidotes. Two diametrically opposed mental states cannot arise at the same time toward the same object. For example, we cannot wish to harm and benefit another person at the
same instant, just as we cannot shake someone’s hand and give him a punch in the same gesture. The more we generate inner freedom from attachment, the less “room” there will be for craving in our mental landscape. If we use the antidote of nonattachment each time a craving arises, not only will it be effectively counteracted but also the very tendency to crave will gradually erode until it eventually disappears.
The crucial point is to maintain constant vigilance over and awareness of our mental state so that, at the moment that afflictive emotions rise up, they will not trigger a chain of deluded thoughts. Thus, we neither let desire overwhelm our mind, nor do we repress
it while leaving it intact in a hidden corner of the mind. We simply become free from its alienating power.
In the second method, instead of trying to counteract every afflictive emotion with a particular antidote, we act on a more fundamental level and use a single antidote to deal with all afflictions. If we examine our emotions and trains of thought without suppressing their natural activity, we find that they are nothing but dynamic streams devoid of intrinsic existence. So, instead of trying to block desire, we can simply examine its true nature. In such a practice, we focus our attention on desire itself, rather than on its object. Does desire have any shape or color? Where does it come from? Where does it dwell? Where does it go when it vanishes from the mind? Is it burning us like a fire, or pulling us like a rope? All we can say is that desire arises in the mind, stays in it for a while, and dissolves in it. The more we try to find any intrinsic characteristics in desire, the more it melts away under our gaze, as frost under the morning sun.
In Buddhism this is called liberating desire by recognizing its empty nature. By doing so, we deactivate its power to cause suffering. Once we have gained some degree of experience, this liberation will happen spontaneously and effortlessly, like the dissolution of a drawing made with the finger on the surface of water. In this way, thoughts will no longer perpetuate in an obsessive stream. Rather, they will cross the mind like birds passing through space, without leaving any trace.
The third method is the most subtle and difficult. If we carefully examine our emotions, we discover that, like musical notes, they have various harmonics. Just as anger has an aspect of clarity, desire has a component of bliss that is distinct from craving. If we know how to distinguish these aspects, it becomes possible to experience a blissful state of mind without being affected by the deluded aspect of grasping. We become aware that emotions Shechen Monastery, Tibet Shechen Monastery in Baudhanath, Kathmandu are not intrinsically afflictive but only become so when we identify with them and grasp onto them. If we succeed in avoiding such a fixation, there is no need to use external antidotes: the emotions themselves act as catalysts that allow us to disengage from their negative influence. When a good swimmer falls into the sea, it is the water itself that allows her to swim to safety.
Thus, for those who are able to master the most intimate mental processes, passions can be used as wood to fuel the fire of spiritual realization and altruism. Such a practice, however, requires great skill in the language of emotions and is not free from dangers: to let powerful emotions express themselves without falling prey to them is like playing with fire. If one succeeds, one will greatly progress in understanding the nature of mind; if one fails, one is enslaved by the ordinary ways of experiencing desire.
The different methods to free oneself from destructive emotions are like keys: it does not matter whether a key is made of iron, silver, or gold, as long at it opens the door to freedom. The question is not which approach is “superior” to the others, but which one fulfills for us the essential goal of the path of inner transformation. When we suffer from a particular ailment, the best medicine is not the most expensive one, but the one that works best.
Matthieu Ricard holds a doctorate in molecular biology from the Institut Pasteur, in Paris. A monk, photographer, and translator, he has lived in the Himalayas for thirty years and now resides at Shechen Monastery, in Nepal. EH